What Is God Like?

The 13th Sunday of Trinity

Luke 15;1-10

Take twenty people, ask them what God is like, and you’ll get at least twenty different opinions. My guess is that for many people, childhood images of him will still loom large. A rather remote, aloof being, with a great long beard, sitting on a throne way above the clouds, listening to heavenly choirs all day long, and, frankly, not all that concerned with what people are getting up to down here, unless, somehow we can badger him into taking an interest. This parody still makes the point that the image is not one drawn from the teaching of Christ.

Two parables for today’s reflection set the record straight. “What man having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” We might say “What is one sheep here or there? Not worth bothering about”. A coin? So what!

Popular Graphic Arts, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But with the loss of even one sheep, the flock is incomplete, its well being is threatened, it is a reproach to the shepherd, for his carelessness. The truth of the matter is, that without God, we are all of us lost sheep. Being lost is the basic human condition, and most of the time we don’t even realise that we are lost. That is why God has to take the initiative, to get us out of the tight corners we are so skilled at getting ourselves into, though somehow not half so successful at extricating ourselves.

And the coin: maybe not just another coin, maybe from the headband of the woman’s wedding dress, which in Jesus’ times had just what is described, ten silver coins attached. The woman perhaps goes to a storage chest, takes the headband out to admire it, the coin drops off, and rolls away into a dark corner. No wonder she searches and searches till she finds it. It symbolises so much; somehow, she is incomplete without it, just as the shepherd’s flock is incomplete without the silly sheep which has strayed off on its own.

These are images that we can all relate too, but there is a point at which the analogy becomes imperfect. Sheep do not have free will, at least in the way in which we do, and a coin is an inanimate thing. The sheep can be forcibly restored to the flock, the coin, when it is found, is stitched back in the headband. So though, like the sheep and the coin, we may well be lost, unlike them, we are always free to say no, to go on resisting. Yes, God takes the initiative, and he takes the initiative by sending Jesus to us to seek out what was lost and to restore it to him. God’s initiative is widely known, but it is widely misunderstood, and widely rejected. God will try and will go on trying, but in the end people are free to walk away.

Even more than the shepherd, the image that sums up God’s quest for the lost is captured in Holman Hunt’s haunting picture, Lux Mundi, Jesus the Light of the World – behold I stand at the door and knock – but only you can let that light in, because there is only one handle on the door, and it is on our side!

But the last bit of the parables is also true: what joy there is when we do come in from the cold, when the sheep is restored to the flock, when the coin is sewn back into the headband. What joy there is over the sinner who realises that it is time to stop running. Time instead to return to Jesus the Good Shepherd. And wherever you are in your Christian journey, the message is the same. Put all your fears aside, and take whatever steps are necessary to open the doors of your life to let Jesus in anew, and to let him in to every corner. In the words of St. Teresa, when a room is filled with light you will see all the cobwebs: but there is nothing to fear, indeed there is everything to gain.

Fr. Edward Bryant

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